Mutant documentary: Intervention
The other night, not unlike Monday nights a-many in the past, I found myself glued to the television, sucked in by a vortex commonly known as Intervention, the television series. Have you watched it? It’s a show about addiction. Beware, you’re liable to become addicted. (And I don’t feel very good about my problem, either, and I think I need help. Where’s my TV show for that?) Watching, I couldn’t help but think about a few colleagues I know in the NY documentary community who’ve begun to direct Intervention. Is this, could this be, is it anything near … documentary?
Well, documentary is a slippery term, as you know, already. Many filmmakers prefer “non fiction film.” Or just plain and simple, “movies.” The Intervention folk wouldn’t dare – they call their thing … a television series. A reality television series. But they tell participants — the ones stumbling around on camera, high out of their minds on coke, meth, booze, herion, you name it – that they are “participating in a documentary about addiction.” (It’s not the only trick card these folks are played – instead of their final interview, they’re inevitably driven to a hotel room where the family and interventionist await to cart them off to rehab. How any reasonable drug addict in America is dumb enough to participate in “a documentary about addiction” without knowing what’s on the other side is a true mystery.)
Indeed, access is often unbelievable on this show, the same secret ingredient often at the crux of a good doc. Consider the episode on Monday night – two brothers, close in age, affluent, good looking, high as hell on herion. And … living in their parents’ house (!!!) … dealing in the thousands of dollars daily … and Dad is in some sort of Shakespearian state of lunacy, claiming that allowing his sons to wallow in their addiction under the safety of his roof is true love. Meanwhile, the boys are half-lidding it around the house, slurring their speech and drooling into piles of dirty laundry. It’s sickeningly fascinating to watch – and makes one feel as great as when you linger too long at a bloody car crash.
I started scrolling back on my education in documentary. Was it so different? The first time I saw Frederick Wiseman’s TITTICUT FOLLIES, wherein a group of mentally handicapped patients put on a talent show and then someone gets his stomach pumped, I felt … dirty. Watching the Loud family (AN AMERICAN FAMILY) go through a divorce? Dirty. Edie Beale and Little Edie (GREY GARDENS) eating cat food for dinner? You got it. Filthy.
But I suppose that’s part of the bargain. Being given the privilege of observing another life, including its horrific problems, is what allows us the empathy that allows us to expand one’s mind beyond stereotype. Which is what documentary, er, I mean, non-fiction film, does best.
Is Intervention documentary? I don’t think so. Maybe a sort of mutant documentary, one that gives viewers a half-doc experience and that gives filmmakers a decent paycheck. But given its structure (the same every week – horrific problem, flashback to innocent child, problem escalates, intervention, fly to rehab, end credits on what the hell happened after that), theme music, and absolute reliance on the rubber-necking element, it’s still a television series.
You can view the entire episode on the brothers, if you can stand it, here: